A decade ago, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) conducted the first national survey that asked workers whether their bosses allowed them to discuss wages and salaries. Results revealed that half of all workers — and approximately two-thirds of private sector workers — were either formally banned or discouraged from talking about pay. Since 2010, 10 states and D.C. have passed legislation penalizing employers who retain these pay secrecy policies. Until recently, whether these state efforts had the intended effect within workplaces remained unknown.
In 2017 and 2018, a team of us — myself, Patrick Denice of Western University and Shengwei Sun, who recently joined IWPR — partnered with the research firm GfK and expanded on IWPR’s initial efforts. We surveyed nearly 2,600 full-time workers on a range of topics, including pay secrecy policies. Our findings indicate that these state-level efforts, and all the ongoing national attention to the issue of pay secrecy in the contemporary workplace, have proved ineffective. The fraction of the workforce able to discuss pay without fear of reprisal hasn’t budged.
Overall, half of full-time workers today labor under a pay secrecy policy of some sort. Among nonunion workers in the private sector, two-thirds can’t exercise their free speech rights to disclose their own pay or ask about their peers’ pay. An analysis limited to those states that have taken action on the issue indicates employers have hardly noticed: Over 40 percent of the working population remains subject to a pay secrecy policy.
One reason for the lack of movement? The enduring social norm against discussing wages and salaries. We asked those subject to a pay secrecy policy whether they supported this infringement of their free speech rights. The overwhelming majority said yes.
But there are emerging cracks in the edifice of the long-standing “salary taboo” governing workplace speech about wages and salaries. Our survey indicates that one group in particular is more likely to discuss pay with colleagues, more likely to know what their colleagues earn and more likely to reject the salary taboo explicitly: millennials.
We adjusted statistically for a range of factors likely to influence one’s knowledge of, desire for, and willingness to discuss pay at work. These include the worker’s tenure at her firm, the worker’s pay, firm size and whether the worker’s boss has a pay secrecy policy. Even after adding these controls, our models indicate that millennial workers (and the rather few Gen Z respondents in our data set) are nearly twice as likely as baby boomers to discuss pay with colleagues.
What about those respondents subject to a pay secrecy policy? Our data reveal that millennials are more likely to violate the restriction. Among workers either discouraged or formally prohibited from talking about pay, over half of millennials report discussing pay with their colleagues, compared to just 26 percent of baby boomers.
Is this simply a case of a broader embrace of an oversharing, extremely transparent lifestyle among a group that came of age in a landscape saturated by social media? Could be. But we argue for a different interpretation. Combined with their strong support for organized labor and willingness to vote for socialist political candidates, we contend that millennials’ rejection of pay secrecy rules reflects a set of workplace dynamics that our youngest workers recognize as fundamentally broken.
The basic underpinnings of the “normative employment contract,” as the sociologist Beth Rubin has termed it, that structured labor markets when past generations began their careers have eroded. Millennials entered the labor force during a period marked by stagnant pay, precarious employment, and a general shifting of market risk downward from firms to employees. The oldest millennials began their careers too late to enjoy the late-1990s economic expansion, and instead saw their incomes fall during the “lost decade” of the aughts. The youngest, meanwhile, finished schooling and embarked on careers during the onset of the Great Recession, with many struggling to gain a firm grip on a middle-class lifestyle during the uneven and prolonged recovery. As a result, millennials have lower earnings and less wealth than older generations did when they were of the same age. And, of course, young adults trying to enter the workforce today confront unemployment rates unrivaled since the Great Depression.
These broader economic trends may have created ripe conditions for younger workers to challenge long-standing workplace norms. One of these is the general prescription against talking about pay, a norm that reinforces common employer rules punishing violators who deign to disclose their own or ask about their colleagues’ pay stub. It’s an outdated norm and unfair violation of our freedom of speech that penalizes women and lowers all workers’ leverage when negotiating for a fairer share of company resources. You won’t ask for a raise that you deserve if you don’t know and can’t find out that you’re being underpaid.
Whether it’s gag orders barring workers from sharing their covid-19 concerns, or rules against asking colleagues about their pay, it turns out that when we’re at work — whatever that means these days — we’re expected to keep our mouths shut. Back in 2014, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “Pay secrecy fosters discrimination, and we should not tolerate it.” Six years on, millions of us are still tolerating it, whether out of our own reluctance to violate the salary taboo, our employer’s policy against discussing pay, or some combination of the two. This Labor Day, let’s listen to our young colleagues and reject workplace speech restrictions that imperil our health and prevent us from receiving what’s rightfully ours.